An Unlikely Story Line
There are many unlikely story lines surrounding the Nashville Predators Stanley Cup Final run. Peter Laviolette‘s third trip to the Final with his third different team. Lightning rod superstar P.K. Subban‘s first trip to the sports ultimate showcase. And the record setting number of contributors both in the line=up and scoring goals for the Predators. But no other story line has captured the sport’s media attention more than the energy and support of the local Nashville fan base.
The stories are boarding on myths at this point. Fans throwing catfish on the ice in opposing team’s rinks. Ten thousand fans watching Games 1 and 2 in a park in downtown Nashville. The stream of A-list celebrity anthem singers and in attendance. And of course, the Tennessee Titans offense line.
Why Nashville Loves The Predators
But in a city deep in football country and not known to be rowdy at either of their two major football stadiums (NFL’s Titans and NCAA’s Vanderbilt Commodores), how did this happen? Or, more aptly, why? Why does Nashville love the Predators so much?
The How as Part of the Why
One of the reasons Nashville loves the Predators is how they were built. General manager David Poile deserves the lion’s share of credit for where the Predators are today. From Day One, Poile has provided the steady, consistent leadership for a franchise that took a slow and steady approach to success.
The recurring theme here is that most hockey clubs are already entrenched in their communities and their markets. Nashville is not — well, was not. Poile was the architect of how the Predators organization became entrenched and why now Nashville loves the Predators.
On the Ice
On the ice and in the building, Poile has consistently gotten a little bit better every year. He’s managed the purse and the locker room deftly. Knowing that the profit margin for a hockey team in a “non-traditional” market and playing in the league’s smallest arena was slim, he has invested and upgraded over the first 19 years of the organization’s history. He never went all in on one player only to be disappointed or bankrupted for the next three seasons. His slow and steady approach has resulted in the Predators now consistently ranked as one of the top sports franchises in North America’s four major sports. ESPN even ranked the Predators as the sixth best North American franchise in 2016.
In the Locker Room
In the locker room, Poile has also found the right ingredients. He’s had two coaches, both with personalities that complement the city well. And he’s consistently put players in the blue and gold that make it easy for the fans to cheer for.
Sure, every general manager wants to have a good locker room with a mix of youthful energy, veteran leadership, and just enough personality to sell some tickets. But not every franchise must have that locker room. The trade for P.K. Subban was masterful. Subban is young, energetic, and the poster child for the successful, modern millennial athlete. That just about sums up the urban core of Nashville: modern and millennial. That is just about the antithesis of the NHL mainstream. What better place for Subban to play, and what better place to enjoy Subban’s brand of hockey than Nashville. That’s just one example of how David Poile sees this interdependence of organization and community better than anyone else.
In the Community
But it’s Poile’s methodology that’s a perfect fit for the city. Nashville is a city that has slowly arrived at the top of many “Best Places to Live” lists (Top 15 in US News and World Report, Business Insider, and Men’s Journal). Nashville is a city that has always taken cues from Atlanta and ensured that their was manageable and responsible. Just as Poile never mortgaged the franchise for a post-season run, Nashville never mortgaged the future for short-term development.
Poile even resembles the politics in Nashville. Nashville had three mayors in the 24 years between 1991 and 2015. All three were practically interchangeable. Pragmatic, steady, consensus builders that balanced history and traditional values with modern progress. That could describe Poile or any of those three mayors (Bredesen, Purcell, and Dean). Poile runs the Predators organization the same way that the city is run. Which makes it easy for the citizens to become comfortable with the franchise.
But the most important factor is that the city has grown right along side the Predators. Both are coming of age and to prominence among their peers simultaneously. It’s more than a connection of success, personality, or politics. It’s a connection of time and place. This is Nashville’s time, and it’s the Predators time as well.
The Legitimacy of the Stars
It doesn’t help when your resident superstars get behind the local sports team. Especially in Nashville, where the music stars are as much a part of the community as the restaurants and honky tonks that they frequent.
It was a perfect match. The arena is downtown, literally across the street from the honky tonks. The honky tonks, in turn, are across the five foot alley from the back doors of the Ryman Auditorium, the “Motherchurch of Country Music.” That’s how the honky tonks became famous. The stars coming to a Preds game is an unconscious remnant of the formative years of downtown Nashville. The people that love Nashville love to hang out and socialize in downtown. They’ve found a new place to be amongst their neighbors and fans.
Vince Gill is the original Preds Celebrity Fan
Learning to Love the Sport
Yes, Middle Tennessee is a football place. Top level high school football, Southeastern Conference college football, and the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. But if you look closer, you’ll see why that actually makes Nashville ripe for hockey success.
Learning the Sport
You see, football is native to Nashville. Hockey isn’t. But Nashvillians and Middle Tennesseans are natural sports fans. It’s not that Nashville didn’t like hockey when the NHL came to town almost two decades ago; it’s just that they didn’t know hockey. The Predators were the vessel by which sports fans in Nashville learned the sport of hockey. The Predators put on clinics and built ice rinks. They literally brought the sport the town and nurtured the understanding and appreciation of the sport to the area.
This was another branch of the team’s efforts in the community. Whereas most hockey teams are adopted by fans just because they grew up with the team, Nashville fans chose to be Preds fans. It was a conscious decision that each fan had to make on their own accord. Only now, with the second generation of fans coming of age, can you see Nashville settling in to home generational status. There’s a whole generation of college and high school kids who have learned to play and appreciate the sport of hockey because of the Predators and their investment into the community.
This stands in stark contrast to football. Football in the Middle Tennessee area predates any living humans in the area. As a young sports fan in Nashville, you learned the sport of football young and from your family. It’s as natural as your native language.
Native Team in a Non-Native Sport
Here’s the dirty little secret to all of this, though. For as much of a sports town that Nashville is, the Predators are really the city’s only major native team. Nashville will always share the Titans with Houston. For every McNair, there’s a Moon. Nashville has Eddie George, Houston has Earl Campbell. For every Mason, there’s a Jeffires. The team might play across the river, but their birth and much of their history is in Houston.
As for SEC football, Nashville has always been a predominantly Volunteers town. Even with Vanderbilt’s campus in the middle of town, the Commodore fan base has always yielded to the University of Tennessee located three hours to the east in Knoxville. The Vandy fans have never really felt comfortable in their own town, and NashVols have always felt like they rent their team from Knoxville.
But the Predators are different. They’ve only belonged to Nashville. And for once, others around the state are cheering for a Nashville team. There’s more of an emotional connection with a native team — even if it’s in a non-native sport.
A Team That Reflects A Town
And it all comes together with the fact that this team is a perfect reflection of this town.
Nashville is town with a subtle mix of blue collar workers and young professionals. Just like the locker room with Mike Fisher and P.K. Subban. It’s a town with work ethic and vibrant night life, where industry and hospitality go together like peanut and jelly. Much the way the Preds play a modern, fast-paced game on the attack and defend their zone with gritty toughness reminiscent of old time hockey. A town with reverence towards its past but unafraid to move forward, reflected in the Predators young core of talented players. Nashville — a city of artist of all types — home to a team with every necessary ingredient for a championship hockey club.
A city coming of age along a the same time as its’ new favorite child.
A Fleeting Moment
Is this Smashville excitement unique in sports? No. It’s happened before. And it’ll happen again, somewhere, at some point. Moreover, because of the point in the organization’s history, this excitement around the Predators is a fleeting moment that each fan should embrace and recognize.
And while the history may pass, and the moment may wane, Saturday night will surely show that the love is here to stay.